Essay by bahau00 September 2004

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The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education By Peter Brimelow HarperCollins, 320 pages, $24.95

America leads the world in spending on public education, yet our students perform dismally. Financial journalist Peter Brimelow addresses this paradox by unmasking the pernicious role of teachers' unions. About 85 percent of teachers belong to the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association; Brimelow focuses on the latter. The NEA boasts 2.6 million members and annual revenues of $1.25 billion. Public-sector employees were once forbidden to unionize. Only in the 1960s did the NEA and AFT become genuine labor unions--and often militant, self-serving, and rapacious.

Applying an economics perspective, Brimelow treats education as an industry, focusing on output (learning attained by high-school seniors) and input (amount of spending to attain it). Today's educational quality is unimpressive, but the worst problem, Brimelow maintains, is quantitative: "Hoggish consumption of ever-increasing resources to do, at best, the same job."

In 2000 dollars, annual spending per pupil was $275 in 1890 and $7,086 in 1999-2000, far outpacing the growth of real gross domestic product.

This happens, Brimelow argues, because the unions practice what economists call "rent-seeking": using a privileged position to get more money than a competitive market would pay, thereby making society worse off. That's why the quality of public education collapsed even as the cost exploded--indicating that the unions' real goal is not better education, but higher income.

Brimelow makes a persuasive case. Most of his book is a well-researched, richly detailed account of the NEA's self-serving conduct. Along the way, he explodes several myths, e.g., contrary to the continuously repeated belief, today's student-teacher ratio is quite low: 16.5 students per teacher in 1998, versus 37.6 in 1870.

Teachers' unions weaken education, Brimelow reveals, by making it almost...